There is an untold truth in wine, that for exceptional wine to be made, man or woman must first enter into an agreement with the vines. There is no dark magic or religious power at play, just as there is no need for slight of hand or mathematical tomfoolery, which it has been asserted can make 2+2=5. The vines must be planted on soils that force them to work, just as the aspect or incline of the site will force the winemaker to work too. This is the agreement – we shall both work hard and the results will be better than if we hadn’t. The outcome is often called terroir.
The basis for this symbiotic relationship is thus the soil; the bedrock on which the foundations of the agreement stand. Therefore, if scouring the earth to find the right limestone-clay combination is required, then scour one must. If the right site is far from civilisation, on an incline prohibitive to mechanisation, and where the vines must be grown low and pruned hard to de-vigour, then so be it.
Both man or woman and vine must make sacrifices. The vine must be clipped to force its mother root down into the hardened rock in search of water and minerals, and must be grown in high density to force competition. The grower will play his or her part and accept both increased toil in the field and the reality of a certain economic gamble from diminished yields per vine, necessary for maximum concentration.
Before its work is done, the vine will provide for with one last gift; the yeast that is required for the fermentation of its bounty, thus securing the continuation of the agreement. The flame will be passed from the grower to the winemaker in the knowledge of this fact, and as a result the agreement will continue into vinification.
Vintages will vary, but this will just grow the relationship and enforce the agreement. The vines will provide as best they can, and the winemaker will work with what he or she has been given, learning from the process, and reinvesting the intellectual results back into the vineyard. People will come to enjoy the variation and how it keeps them on their toes, as they discover new flavours, aromas and sensations they hadn’t expected to encounter.
For his or her part in the deal, the winemaker will agree to treat the grapes as naturally as possible, refraining from fashionable, overt processing with new “flavour of the month” techniques. Grapes will be crushed by foot, and intracellular fermentation will occur naturally as a result, and oxidation, if it occurs, will be accepted and not despised as a thing of the devil.
Additives such as DAP and powdered tannins, and the practices of acidification and chaptilisation will be avoided, as too will the overuse of sulphur dioxide. Courage for this brave act will be gained through the knowledge that the grower and the vine have already worked hard in the field to provide all that is required.
People will claim this as hands off wine-making, but the last laugh will be on them in the knowledge that, through hand weeding, picking, selecting and de-stemming, the number of hands that have played a part in this wine is uncharacteristically high.
Having built its bones from the limestone, and its blood from the clay, the wine will not be stripped of its soul by fining or filtering, and will be allowed to grow older and wiser in vessels of maturation as befitting its character; old barrels for the gentle caress of oak and softening oxygenation, and clay amphorae for acetaldehyde development.
Instinct and gut feeling will be encouraged and nurtured, as too will experimentation wherever possible; one must not live in fear of difference or exception to the rule, as this is the charm of wine. In this respect, uncommon varietals must be welcomed, as too must the treatment of common ones with different and uncommon practices.
The results will at the same time, be fine, complex, and sophisticated – rustic, raucous and lively, showing depth, concentration and yet fragility at once. And as a final proof of the agreement and its worth, grapes from neighbouring sites, grown with identical care and vinified in a consistent manner will show variation and individuality that, after searching long and hard for the correct descriptor, people will announce as the proof of terroir.
by J J Shearlock